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Sketches of the Living Poets. Mr. Coleridge.
The Examiner  No. 720  (21 October 1821)  664-67.
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No. 720. SUNDAY, Oct. 21, 1821.


No. 4.—Mr. Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in the year 1773 at St. Mary Ottery, in Devonshire, where his father, the Rev. John Coleridge, an eminent scholar, was vicar of the parish. He was grounded in classical learning at Christ-Hospital under the Rev. Mr. Bowyer, who with a daringness of expression to which that learned person and pains-taking schoolmaster was not often excited, used to call him to mind as “that sensible fool, Coleridge.” Mr. Coleridge, in his Literary Life, as well as Mr. Lamb in his Recollections of the School, has given a sufficiently grateful account of his old master; yet he informs us that he is apt to have dreams of him at night, to this hour, not very soothing: and his account did not hinder it from being said after Mr. Bowyer’s death, that it was lucky for the cherubim who bore the old gentleman to heaven that they had only heads and wings, or he would infallibly have flogged them by the way. At nineteen, Mr. Cole-
ridge went to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he exhibited, we believe, equal indifference to university honours and power to obtain them. On his leaving college, his speculative susceptibility led him through a singular variety of adventures, some of which he has touched upon in his Biographia Literaria. He became a journalist, a preacher, a dragoon. In the second character he bewitched, among others,
William Hazlitt, then on the look out for a “guide and philosopher.” In the last he astonished a party of ladies and gentlemen who were at an exhibition, by explaining a huge compound word from the Greek, by which the nature of it was made “dark with excessive bright” over the door. He had become in the mean time the head of a literary and speculative circle of young men, consisting chiefly of Messrs. Lamb, Lloyd, Southey, and Lovell, of the two latter of whom he became the brother-in-law by their marrying three sisters at Bath. A project was formed to go with these ladies to America, and found a Pantisocracy, or system of equal government, in which every thing but the best was to be in common; but it did not take place. In 1798, the late public-spirited “Etrurians,” Josiah and Thomas Wedgewood, enabled Mr. Coleridge to finish his studies of men and books in Germany, where he met Mr. Wordsworth, with whom he had lately become acquainted. At Hamburgh they paid a visit to Klopstock. Klopstock complained of the English translation of his Messiah, and wished Mr. Coleridge “to revenge him” by versions of select passages. The thought was ingenious; but his visitor seems to have reckoned it not equally fair; for he concludes his interesting account of this interview, in the Friend, by saying, that when the Pastor of the town called his countryman “the German Milton,” he could not help muttering to himself “a very German Milton indeed!”—Mr. Coleridge was afterwards secretary, for about a year and a half, to Sir Alexander Ball, Governor of Malta, of whom he gives so exalted, and, we dare say, so just a character in the work above mentioned. He then returned to England, and after living some time in the Lakes and other places, and publishing various pieces of prose and poetry, took up his abode at Highgate, where he seems to live like the scholar in Chaucer, who would rather have

- - - - - - - - - - - - At his bed’s head
A twenty bokes, clothid in black and red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie,
Than robes rich, or fiddle, or psaultrie.

Mr. Coleridge was reckoned handsome when young. He is now “more fat than bard beseems,” and his face does not strike at first sight; but the expression is kind, the forehead remarkably fine, and the eye, as you approach it, extremely keen and searching. It has been compared to Bacon’s, who was said to have “an eye like a viper.” At first, it seems reposing under the bland weight of his forehead.

The principal works of Mr. Coleridge are the Friend, a series of essays; Remorse, a tragedy; Biographia Literaria, or his Literary Life; Lay Sermons, Theologico-Political; the poem of Christabel; and Sybilline Leaves, a collection of the greater part of his other poetical pieces, including the Ancient Mariner. We are acquainted with Mr. Coleridge’s prose writings, but we have not a sufficient knowledge of them, nor perhaps knowledge of any other kind, to pronounce upon their merits. Our general impression is, that they are very eloquent, imaginative, and subtle, more masterly in words than in the sum total of style, and more powerful in thoughts than in conclusions. In many passages, indeed (we allude to his essays entitled the Friend), it is impossible not to recognize that weakness of the will, or liability to the same amount of impression from all views of a question, which has been observed by a critic better able to speak of him, with this exception, which perhaps only proves the rule, that he is very fond of bringing whatever he likes in the speculations of other men, from the Father of the Church to the Pantheist, to assimilate with his notions of the Christian religion; while on the other hand he has a good handsome quantity of dislike for modern innovators, and refuses to make a harmony out of their “differences,” which he thinks by no means “discreet.” In other words, he is a deep thinker, and good natured indolent man, who, entrenched in his old books and habits, and grateful to them, all round, for the occupation they have afforded his thoughts, is as glad to make them all agree at this dispassionate distance of time, as he is anxious not to have them disturbed by men who have not the same hold on his prejudices. This may account for his being numbered among those who have altered their opinions on the necessity of political change. Mr. Coleridge is prepared to argue, that he has not altered his opinions, nor even suppressed them; and though his arguments might appear strange to those who recollect such productions as the Watchman, he would go nigh to persuade thirty persons out of forty that he really had not:—all which amounts perhaps to thus much, that he can fetch out of things, apparently the most discordant, their hidden principles of agreement; but not having been able to persuade people of the agreement when he was advocating political change, he turns upon them for their disobedience, and would shew them, with equal subtlety, that what he advocated was none of the change which they wanted, whatever they might have flattered themselves it was. In other words, his turn of mind was too contemplative for action; and seeing that all the world would not become what he wished it, on the pure strength of ratiocination, he becomes, out of indolence, what Mr. Wordsworth became out of pride, and Mr. Southey out of vanity. But indolence, such as his, is a more disinterested and conscientious thing than pride and vanity; and accordingly he became neither a distributor of stamps, nor a poet-laureate. That those more active and consistent politicians, who were in some measure taught by himself, should be very angry with him, is extremely natural; but so were those consequences of his turn of mind, that produced their anger. He is all for thought and imagination, and nothing else. It might have been better had he been more active, just as it might have been better for Lord Bacon had his being all for experiment not tempted him to take leave of sentiment and imagination in trying to raise his paltry worldly greatness. But let Mr. Coleridge have his due; which is seldom given to such abstract personages. He is a kind of unascetic Bramin among us, one who is always looking inwardly, and making experiments upon the nature and powers of his soul. Lord Bacon refused to license inquisitions of that nature, and said some hard things about cobwebs and dark keeping; but surely they are not only allowable to the few who are likely to indulge them, but are also experiments after their kind, and may open worlds to us by and by, of which the philosopher no more dreams at present, than the politician did of Columbus’s.

Mr. Coleridge speaks very modestly of his poetry,—not affectedly so, but out of a high notion of the art in his predecessors. He delighted the late Mr. Keats, in the course of conversation, with adding, after he had alluded to it,—“if there is any thing I have written which may be called poetry:” and the writer of the present article heard him speak of verses, as the common tribute which a young mind on its entrance into the world of letters pays to the love of intellectual beauty. His poetry however has an “image and superscription” very different from this current coin. We do not, it is true, think that it evinces the poetical habit of mind—or that tendency to regard every thing in its connexion with the imaginative world, which in a minor sense was justly attributed to the author of the Seasons, and its greater belonged to Spenser and Milton. But it is full of imagination and of a sense of the beautiful, as suggested by a great acquaintance with books and thoughts, acting upon a benevolent mind. It is to the scholar of old books and metaphysics, what Milton’s was to the Greek and Italian
scholar. It is the essence of the impression made upon him by that habit of thinking and reading, which is his second nature. Mr. Coleridge began with metaphysics when at school; and what the boy begins with, the man will end with, come what will between. He does not turn metaphysical upon the strength of his poetry, like Spenser and
Tasso; but poet upon the strength of his metaphysics. Thus in the greater part of his minor poems he only touches upon the popular creeds, or wilful creations of their own, which would occupy other poets, and then falls musing upon the nature of things, and analysing his feelings. In his voyage to Germany, he sees a solitary wild-fowl upon “the objectless desert of waters,” and says how interesting it was. It was most probably from a train of reflection on the value of this link between land and the ship, that he produced his beautiful wild poem of the Ancient Mariner, which he precedes with a critico-philosophical extract from Burnet’s Archæologia. We do not object to this as belonging to his genius. We only instance it, as shewing the nature of it. In the same spirit, he interrupts his Christabel with an explanation of the wish sometimes felt to give pain to the innocent; and instead of being content to have written finely under the influence of laudanum, recommends Kubla Khan to his readers, not as a poem, but as “a psychological curiosity.” All this however is extremely interesting of its kind, and peculiar. It is another striking instance of what we have often remarked,—the deep delight in it, of whatever kind, to extend itself into poetry, which lies like a heaven in the centre of this intellectual world for those to go to and be refreshed with, more or less, who are not bound to the physical world like slaves to the soil. Every lover of books, scholar or not, who knows what it is to have his quarto open against a loaf at his tea, to carry his duodecimo about in his pocket, to read along country roads or even streets, and to scrawl his favourite authors with notes, (as “S. T. C.” is liberally sanctioned to do those of others by a writer in the London Magazine,) ought to be in possession of Mr. Coleridge’s poems, if it is only for Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Ancient Mariner. The first comprises all that is ancient and courteous in old rhythm, and will also make any studious gentleman, who is not sufficiently imaginative, turn himself round divers times in his chair, as he ought to do, to see if there is not “something in the room.” Kubla Khan is a voice and a vision, an everlasting tune in our mouths, a dream fit for Cambuscan and all his poets, a dance of pictures such as Giotto and Cimabue, revived and re-inspirited, would have made for a Storie of Old Tartarie, a piece of the invisible world made visible by a sun at midnight and sliding before our eyes.
Beware, beware,
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your lips with holy dread,
For he on honey dew hath fed,
And drank of the milk of Paradise.
Justly is it thought that to be able to present such images as these to the mind, is to realise the world they speak of. We could repeat such verses as the following down a green glade, a whole summer’s morning:—
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw,
A lovely Abyssinian maid;
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Aborah.
As to the “Ancient Mariner,” we have just this minute read it again, and all that we have been saying about the origin of the author’s poetry, appears to be nonsense. Perhaps it is, and we are not sorry that it should be. All that we are certain of is, that the “Ancient Mariner” is very fine poetry, and that we are not the “one of three” to whom the sea-faring old greybeard is fated to tell his story, for we are aware of the existence of other worlds beside the one about us, and we would not have shot the solitary bird of good omen, nor one out of a dozen of them.
It is an Ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three:
“By thy long grey beard and thy glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
The Bridegroom’s doors are open’d wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set;
Mayst hear the merry din.”
He holds him with his skinny hand,
“There was a ship,” quoth he,
“Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!”
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The wedding guest stood still,
And listens like a three year’s child:
The Mariner hath his will.
The Ancient Mariner was one of a crew, who were driven by a storm to the south pole. An albatross appeared, who became familiar with the sailors, and a good wind sprang up. The Mariner not having the fear of a violation of kindness and gentleness before his eyes, killed the albatross, for which the others said he would be pursued with a misfortune; but the good breeze still continues, and carries them as far back as the line, for which they laugh at his offence, and say it was a good thing. But now “the ship has been suddenly becalmed.” (We proceed to quote the marginal summary which the author has added in imitation of old books.) “The ship hath been suddenly becalmed, and the albatross begins to be avenged. A spirit had followed them; one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew,
Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted. They are very numerous, and there is no climate or element without one or more. The shipmates, in their sore distress, would fain throw the whole guilt on the ancient mariner, in sign whereof they hang the dead sea-bird about his neck. The Ancient Mariner beholdeth a sign in the element afar off. At its nearer approach it seemeth him to be a ship; and at a dear ransom he freeth his speech from the bonds of thirst. A flash of joy. And horror follows. For can it be a ship that comes onward without wind or tide? It seemeth him but the skeleton of a ship. And its ribs are seen as bars on the face of the setting sun. The spectre-woman and her death-mate, and no other on board the skeleton ship. Like vessel, like crew. Death, and Life-in-Death, have diced for the ship’s crew, and she (the latter) winneth the Ancient Mariner. At the rising of the moon, one after another, his shipmates drop down dead; but Life-in-Death begins her work on the Ancient Mariner. The wedding-guest feareth that a spirit is talking to him; but the Ancient Mariner assureth him of his bodily life, and proceedeth to relate his horrible penance. He despiseth the creatures of the calm, and envieth that they should live, and so many lie dead. But the curse lieth for him in the eye of the dead men. In his loneliness and fixedness he yearneth toward the journeying moon, and the stars that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest, and their native country, and their own natural homes, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected, and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival. By the light of the moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm. Their beauty and their happiness. He blesseth them in his heart. The spell begins to break. By grace of the holy Mother, the Mariner is refreshed with rain. He heareth sounds and seeth strange sights and commotions in the sky and the element. The bodies of the ship’s crew are inspirited, and the ship moves on—
“I fear thee, ancient Mariner!”
Be calm, thou Wedding-Guest!
’Twas not those souls that fled in pain,
Which to their corses came again,
But a troop of spirits blest.
For when it dawned—they dropped their arms,
And clustered round the mast;
Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,
And from their bodies passed.
Around, around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again,
Now mixed, now one by one.
Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the sky-lark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!
And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the Heavens be mute.
It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.
Till noon we quietly sailed on,
Yet never a breeze did breathe:
Slowly and smoothly went the ship,
Moved onward from beneath.
The lonesome spirit from the South-pole carries on the ship as far as the line, in obedience to the angelic troop, but still requireth vengeance.

The Polar Spirit’s fellow-dæmons, the invisible inhabitants of the element, take part in his wrong; and two of them relate, one to the other, that penance long and heavy for the Ancient Mariner hath been accorded to the Polar spirit, who returneth southward. The Mariner hath been cast into a trance; for the angelic power causeth the vessel to drive northward, faster than human life could endure. The supernatural motion is retarded; the Mariner awakes, and his penance begins anew. The curse is fully expiated. And the Ancient Mariner beholdeth his native country. The angelic spirits leave the dead bodies, and appear in their own forms of light. The Hermit of the wood approacheth the ship with wonder. The ship suddenly sinketh. The Ancient Mariner is saved in the Pilot’s boat. The Ancient Mariner earnestly entreateth the Hermit to shrieve him; and the penance of life falls on him. And ever and anon throughout his future life an agony constraineth him to travel from land to land. And to teach by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.”

This is a lesson to those who see nothing in the world but their own unfeeling common-places, and are afterwards visited with a dreary sense of their insufficiency. Not to have sympathy for all, is not to have the instinct that suffices instead of imagination. Not to have imagination, to supply the want of the instinct, is to be left destitute and forlorn when brute pleasure is gone, and to be dead-in-life. This poem would bear out a long marginal illustration in the style of the old Italian critics, who squeeze a sonnet of Petrarch’s into the middle of the page with a crowd of fond annotations. Be the source of its inspiration what it may, it is a poem that may serve as a test to any one who wishes to know whether he has a real taste for poetry or not. And be Mr. Coleridge what he may, whether an author inspired by authors or from himself, whether a metaphysical poet or a poetical metaphysician, whether a politician baulked and rendered despairing like many others by the French Revolution, or lastly, and totally, a subtle and good-natured casuist fitted for nothing but contemplation, and rewarded by it with a sense of the beautiful and wonderful above his casuistry, we can only be grateful for the knowledge and delight he affords us by his genius, and recognise in him an instance of that departure from ordinary talent, which we are far from being bound to condemn, because it does not fall in with our own humours. If it is well for the more active that his prose does not talk quite well or vivaciously enough to turn them from their stream of action, and so unfit them for their purposes, they ought to be glad that they have such men to talk to them when they are at rest, and to maintain in them that willingness to be impartial, and that power of “looking abroad into universality,” without which action itself would never be any thing but a mischievous system of reaction and disappointment, fretting and to fret.

They also serve, who only stand and wait.

[No. 5, Mr. Barry Cornwall.]